Over one million tourists visit Thailand each year, for business, pleasure, and sometimes both. Knowing the correct way to act in a foreign country with such a different culture and religion from the Western world is essential to avoid misunderstandings.
How to Greet Thai People
While some Thai people use the handshake, most of them still prefer the traditional wai. This gesture, made by joining both hands and bringing them to the face, is difficult to understand for most foreigners.
For example, since performing this gesture is a deep expression of respect, wai-ing children or people who serve you such as shop assistants and waiters will be met by bewilderment by Thais.
However, foreigners should try to wai Thais who have an equal or superior social status to theirs. For example, friends or colleagues should be wai-ed.
How to Avoid Offending Thai People
In Thailand, the worst thing one can do to another in a social situation is to make him or her lose face. Therefore, Thais generally avoid open conflict. Foreigners should keep their calm in all situations, even if the other party is at fault, and express their complaint with a smile.
In addition to this, it is best to remember the following advice:
- Feet are seen as a filthy part of the human body while the head is seen as the purest part. Therefore, visitors should avoid pointing at other people with their feet or touching other people’s heads, including children.
- Tourists should always ask permission before taking pictures of locals.
- Foreigners should never criticize the Thai Royal family. Not only would it greatly offend Thai people, but it is also a criminal offense under Thai law.
- Public displays of affection such as kissing are frowned upon in Thailand. Holding hands, even for gay tourists, is however acceptable.
- Male foreigners should avoid walking shirtless in the street since it is seen by Thais as an offense against moral values.
Making New Friends in Thailand
When meeting friends for a social event, it is common for the person with the highest social status to pay the bill, whether at a restaurant, at the movies, etc…
In most cases, since tourists tend to earn more than locals, it will be expected from them. However, Thai friends will generally offer small gifts as a token of their appreciation.
The following topics of conversation are best avoided when talking to Thais, especially if they are mere acquaintances: Thai politics and the Royal family.
However, most locals will speak freely about topics such as religion and money and may ask foreigners questions about their beliefs and salary.